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Making lasting change towards active travel and green transport

North Berwick with temporary pavement widening - Image credit: Alamy

Making lasting change towards active travel and green transport

Lockdown gave an insight into what Scotland could be like with fewer cars on the road and more people walking and cycling.

Virtually instantly coronavirus created the kind of behaviour change that years of policy and planning haven’t, but the question is how to harness that to make the kind of lasting change that is needed to tackle climate change and create a healthier nation.

Most councils have taken advantage of the Scottish Government’s £30m Spaces for People fund for temporary active travel measures during the coronavirus outbreak, with 30 local authorities putting in bids amounting to over £38m for road closures, pavement widening and pop-up cycle lanes, but there are questions over how much of this will lead to permanent change.

And coronavirus has led to a move backwards in other areas, with the introduction of low emission zones in Scotland’s cities now postponed until 2022 and a downturn in the use of public transport due to fears over transmission of the virus.

More ambitious and long-term measures are needed if Scotland is to meet its climate targets.

According to Gavin Thomson from Friends of the Earth Scotland, one issue was relying on councils to come up with projects and apply for the funding.

He tells Holyrood: “When you look at how the money from Scottish Government was distributed, some councils really took advantage of it and have pushed forward with quite ambitious plans, maybe leaning on plans that they've already developed before lockdown … but some councils haven't really done that much.

“A couple of councils didn't even apply for funding from the Scottish Government and some applied for relatively small grants and haven't yet implemented a huge amount.”

He suggests that in some local authorities there either wasn't the capacity or the political will before COVID for additional walking and cycling measures, and so during the lockdown when this funding became available, some councils weren’t interested in it.

That will cause problems longer term, he says, and councils that don’t have capacity will need more support.

“A concern longer term is that we might be seeing ambitious measures in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, and other councils are kind of left behind.

“And that will start to have an impact when more people start cycling, then areas that are better for cycling will probably also have better air quality, better quality of life factors. And so areas that are still completely dependent on car use will be left behind.

“So I think there's a concern about trying to make sure that every council in every community can make it easier to walk and cycle, particularly for short journeys.”

One council that is taking some interesting measures in green transport is Aberdeen, which this month will take delivery of 15 second-generation hydrogen buses.

Part of a plan to make Aberdeen a key national hub for hydrogen, the buses will run on green hydrogen from renewable electricity.

But why choose hydrogen, which some would see as controversial?

The choice is “relatively simple”, says Councillor Philip Bell, Aberdeen City Council’s spokesperson on hydrogen.

“You can have battery electric and you can haul three tonnes of batteries in your bus or you can have hydrogen fuel cell electric and you probably haul half that weight, so there's a weight advantage.

“The other advantage is range. So, hydrogen fuel cell buses can probably work at least for twice as long, travel twice as far as a battery electric bus.

“The other reason is you can refuel them quickly. So if you're running a commercial operation, and you want to recharge your buses, you either have twice the number of buses and you charge the buses over a period of several hours when they're not being used or you have a hydrogen fuel cell bus and you refuel it in 13 minutes.”

Hydrogen also has an ethical advantage, Bell says, in not requiring lithium and cobalt, which are linked to water pollution and child labour respectively.

The downside with hydrogen is it's quite expensive because there aren't many hydrogen fuel cell buses around, but, Bell says, price comes down with scale, and that is what Aberdeen is trying to do.

Much of the change that is needed, whether greening transport or increasing active travel, involves some new infrastructure or vehicles, and therefore major costs.

The Scottish Government has committed to £500m funding for active travel over the next five years, but according to Thomson, this is nowhere near enough, and indeed “a bit alarming”.

He explains: “The programme for government committed 500 million [pounds] over five years for active travel, which sounds like a huge amount of money, but then the active travel budget for this year alone was already 100 [million].

“And then when you project it forward five years, what with inflation and whatever, if it's 100 million a year in five years' time, that will be a real-terms cut, and we actually need to be increasing it substantially year on year, because as more people cycle, there'll be more demand, a bigger, more joined-up cycle lane network.

“And so the idea that we would just continue to spend at this level over the next five years is a bit alarming.”

According to Thomson we need to increase the spend per person to about the same as countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands where cycling levels are where we need to get to, and that's a “fair bit higher” per person than the £100m the Scottish Government committed this year.

He also notes that when there was much reduced traffic over the summer, a lot more people cycled, which proves the point that the main barrier to cycling is fear of car traffic, and so a segregated cycle lane network is the only way of overcoming that.

With an election coming up next year, now is the time for parties to set out how they intend to meet Scotland’s climate change targets. And more will need to be done.

“Is there enough being done to achieve those targets? Absolutely not. No, we're nowhere close,” says Thomson.

Thomson suggests that “big interventions” are now needed.

These include improving the bus fleet, public ownership of buses and making bus the default mode of transport, with bus lanes not just in cities but also on motorways; limiting where fossil fuel vehicles can go, and setting a date for a complete ban on their use; increasing funding year on year for active travel; the infrastructure to support people to cycle; and decarbonising the railways. But key is making that change away from car use and to walking and cycling.

Thomson says: “Every political party needs to think about the vision for reducing to zero all our fossil fuel traffic.

“That's a huge ask. Obviously, that's going to involve a lot of different interventions, but I think those short journeys, particularly in our towns and cities, where people are still taking the car because it's the easiest, it's the safest option, that's the low hanging fruit. That's where you need most interventions.”

Read the most recent article written by Jenni Davidson - Christmas will not be ‘absolutely normal’ this year, Nicola Sturgeon says

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